News Review From Harvard Medical School -- More Women Cite Heart as Top Health Risk
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of U.S. women, and more of them realize it today than 15 years ago, a survey shows. About 56% of those surveyed last year knew about this risk. That's nearly double the 30% rate in 1997. Awareness rose from 15% to 36% among black women and from 20% to 34% among Hispanics. Though that's a sharp increase, rates still lagged those among white women. Young women had the lowest awareness of heart disease risk among all age groups, about 44%. The American Heart Association sponsored the survey, which included 2,400 women. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the group's "Go Red for Women!" campaign. Public health campaigns have helped to boost awareness. Yet nearly half of U.S. women still don't know that heart disease is their top risk of death. More efforts are needed, particularly among minority women, the study's author told HealthDay News. The journal Circulation published the study online February 19.
By Reena L. Pande, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
It's February. And February is heart month, a time for calling attention to heart disease and the factors that increase the risk of this disease. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women" campaign. So it's a great chance to reflect on how far we've come and how much work we still have to do to raise awareness about heart disease in women.
That is exactly the focus of a new study published this week. Researchers compared women's views about heart disease back in 1997 with their knowledge about heart disease in 2012. Online and telephone surveys asked more than 1,200 women about:
- Their lifestyles
- How much they knew about heart disease
- What they would do if they had any symptoms of a heart attack
Here's what the survey found:
1. The percentage of women who were aware that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women nearly doubled during the last 15 years.
Awareness increased from 30% in 1997 to 56% in 2012. We have obviously made a lot of progress. However, this study reminds us that almost half of the women surveyed (44%) still did not know this important piece of information.
2. Younger women (ages 25-34) still had the lowest awareness rate of all the age groups.
Younger women also reported that their doctors were less like to discuss heart disease with them. Unfortunately, this represents a missed opportunity. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure have increased among younger adults. So this is the time to start thinking about changing lifestyles to prevent heart disease. Good habits in life begin early.
It is also important to remember that some conditions that occur during pregnancy increase the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease later in life. One example is gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes that occurs only during pregnancy. Another is preeclampsia, whose symptoms include high blood pressure. Doctors need to be better at reminding young women to get healthy and prevent heart disease.
3. Black and Hispanic women still had the lower awareness rates of all groups.
The difference in awareness, diagnosis, and treatment of heart disease among racial and ethnic groups remains a problem. In this study, black and Hispanic women had the lowest awareness rates. On the other hand, racial and ethnic minorities reported the highest levels of trust of their doctors. This is an opportunity to continue to improve awareness about heart disease among these groups.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
Knowledge is power. Knowing that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women is the first step in helping to prevent it. Some people have a higher risk than others. Factors that increase the risk of heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Family history of heart disease
You can't change your family history. But you can take steps to reduce these other risks. Here's what you can do:
- Quit smoking.
- Get moving.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Get treatment if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Early treatment of a heart attack can save lives. So it helps to know the most frequent symptoms. They include:
- Chest discomfort (may feel like pain, pressure, squeezing or even like heartburn)
- Arm, neck or jaw discomfort
- Trouble breathing
- Feeling sweaty
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Nausea or vomiting
Remember that women are more likely than men to have "atypical" symptoms, and not classic chest pain.
And spread the word. Tell your family members, friends, co-workers and others about heart disease. It's never too early to start thinking about how to prevent heart disease from happening.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
While this study is reassuring, it also reminds us that we still have much more work to do. Too many women (and men) still are not aware that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for U.S. adults. Too few people know the symptoms of heart disease and the warning signs.
Doctors and public health advocates need to keep up efforts to raise awareness about heart disease and its risk factors. We can do better, not only at treating heart disease but also at preventing it from happening in the first place. Raising awareness is the first step.